Since Roe v. Wade was overturned, people have been talking about what abortion was like in the days before modern medical procedures. Even in ancient history, abortions were performed with both surgical and medicinal techniques; Ben Franklin famously included a protocol for herbal abortions in one of his books. And so, of course, methods of inducing abortions at home have been much discussed over the last few days. Herbs sound nicer than coat hangers, don’t they?
This advice is going to get somebody killed. And I don’t mean this in the way of TikTokers smirking while they say “oh you definitely don’t want to drink any pennyroyal tea...” which, let me tell you, is a very popular genre of post on social media these days.
None of them, honestly. If you need an abortion, start with clinics and helplines that operate in or near your area. (The National Network of Abortion Funds can help you find support near you.) If you are early in your pregnancy and hoping to find something you can take at home, what you really want is misoprostol, which is taken either alone or with mifepristone. These are pills, not herbs. They work, and they are safe. Before Roe was overturned, there were 20 states where you could legally get these pills in the mail and use them to induce an abortion.
Today, their legality in your area may vary, but these websites are legit and may be able to help you access abortion medication:
First of all, if you think of herbs as a fun, quaint, soothingly natural way to get medication, you are wrong. Herbs were (and still are) used as medicine, but the experience is not usually “mmm, I’m drinking this tasty tea and soon I will feel better.” If you’re taking something that only “works” by acting as a placebo, that might be the case.
But more commonly, medical “herbs” are preparations of powerful, plant-derived toxins, and even historically, people risked side effects ranging from vomiting to organ damage to death.
Even so, many of these herbs didn’t work for their intended purpose. Sometimes medical recipes were passed on because they seemed like they should work, or because they were included in a mixture of herbs that seemed to work at least once. There are cases of medication recipes being copied incorrectly from one book to another, and passed on anyway. You can’t laugh at old-timey doctors and their bloodletting if you’re also cribbing recipes from old-timey midwives and their herbs. The fact that something was rumored to be used a long time ago does not constitute evidence that it should be used for that purpose today.
Not to mention: Rumors are not really a good enough basis for setting up a medical protocol. If you’re going to fuck with your life and health, you’ll want more information than just somebody on TikTok telling you to definitely not make this tea or drink that essential oil when your period is late.
Inducing an abortion with herbs is risky, and not just because it might be ineffective. The most famous abortifacient herbs have a body count.
For example, here are two cases of pennyroyal oil ingestion written up in 1979. One woman ingested about 30 milliliters of the oil, in what the doctors suspect was an attempt at either abortion or at suicide. She came to the hospital vomiting blood, and died two days later with internal bleeding and damage to her liver and kidneys, among other symptoms. The second case was a woman who drank 10 milliliters of the oil, went to the hospital due to extreme dizziness, and went home a few days later with a normally functioning liver. However, she was still pregnant.
The funny thing about pennyroyal’s use as an abortifacient is that it probably doesn’t even work. “The human data says not really, not without poisoning the woman first,” tweeted toxicologist Ryan Marino.
Some other herbs may be capable of inducing an abortion without necessarily killing you, but if you’re going down this line of thinking, it may be worth asking yourself if you are truly out of other options. Herbalist Crystal Honeycutt told Mic:
“You absolutely can induce an abortion [with herbs], but that is a major thing,” Honeycutt said. “Not only are you in a lot of pain, you might also be in a lot of emotional or spiritual turmoil. Your body is going through the (w)ringer; you can inadvertently start hemorrhaging. The same risks with a medical procedure are amplified through herbal abortion.”
That last sentence holds an important point that the people passing around tea and herbal oil recipes are missing: This is a medical procedure. It’s one where you may be going into it not even knowing the appropriate dosage, the side effects to watch out for, the success rate, or the risks you are taking. Would you accept that for anything else?
What’s more, the information that is available for DIY use is often incomplete and contradictory. For example, one website describes blue cohosh as “a powerful women’s ally” but then goes on to say that it did not work for the author. Interviewees in a DNAinfo piece about herbal abortions suggested that some herbalists see this uncertainty as something of a plus, in that it leaves the final result “in God’s hands.”
A redditor who discussed excerpts relating to abortifacients from her grandmother’s herbal notebook probably put it best: “Unless you are completely ok with dying instead of remaining pregnant, its not worth it, look into pharmaceutical abortions, even if you have to ship them in illegally, it will be safer.”